by Ernie Diaz
Nothing beside remains: round the decay k, boundless and bare,
Of that colossal wrec
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
k, boundless and bare,
- P.B. Shelley, Ozymandias
Shelley ached with what none of us likes to admit: no matter how rich and wondrous our lives and the cities we build around them, sooner or later it will all turn to dust. No wonder he drowned himself at the age of thirty; genius and romanticism seldom mix well. Then again, you try staying chipper saddled with a name like Percy Bysshe.
In time Beijing will be nothing but desert. The Gobi Desert closes in every day. And global warming could preserve Shanghai, San Fran, and all other coastal metropoles in brine before we save up enough for sailboats.
Whether or not you appreciate doomsday woolgathering, visiting ancient ruins is a must for the dedicated traveler. It’s a truism that travel broadens your horizons, but seeing what has flourished and then decayed gives those horizons depth. The Parthenon, Pompeii – nice, but a trifle too accessible. Loulan, on the other hand, is still almost as solitary and windswept as when Super-Swede Sven Hedin stumbled upon it in 1900.
The lost city of Loulan occupies the eastern edge of the Taklamakan Desert, a desiccated corner of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Hedin must have wondered what possessed a people to build palaces, temples, towers and markets in the midst of so much sand. What else but water? A broad elliptical depression bordering the ruins is all that remains of Lop Nur Lake, blessed source of life that made Loulan an ideal stopover from the earliest days of Silk Road trade.
Extensive records from both China and the West confirm Loulan’s forgotten glory as the center of a kingdom, a 360,000 square kilometer nexus where Han, Uygur, and a score of other peoples long since lost in the melting pot made their lives. This diversity marks the wisdom reconstructed from all the relics: Han Dynasty coins, documents written in the ancient Indian dialect of Kharosthi, Persian perfume and carpets, Greek woolens, and most notably Chinese silk – brocade, damask, and embroidery, as precious as gold to those who never dreamed of mass production.
Maybe only archeologists get off on relics, but everyone digs mummies. The most significant discovery unearthed at the ruins thus far, the “Loulan Beauty” blows the lid off any lingering notions of racial homogeneity, much as the Iron Age Arab recently discovered in Denmark has.
The Loulan Beauty, almost perfectly preserved, had light hair and a high, pronounced nose – telltale signs of the Caucasian. What’s more, she died 3800 years ago, almost two millennia before the city was officially founded in 176 B.C. Ten years ago, two more mummies, an infant from the same era as the Loulan Beauty and an old man dead a mere fifteen hundred years, helped archeologists reconstruct a city well-ordered, well-governed, and well-integrated with a panoply of every people to have made a home in Central Asia.
No doubt the cosmopolitan nature of Loulan boosted its vitality and longevity. But after eight hundred years, the same stretch that Beijing has enjoyed, increasing aridity sapped Loulan of its resources, then its people. It is believed that a catastrophic, prolonged sandstorm finished the job of reducing it to a ghost town.
Korla, lying on the route between Urumqi and Kashgar, is the only city of substance in the vicinity of Loulan. From there, excursions can be arranged, involving camels as well as automobile. True, it takes considerable trouble to see this place that isn’t there anymore. Such is the price of adventure.
How to get there: A trip to the Ancient City of Loulan is not recommended to casual tourists because the journey is difficult and Loulan’s remote location and harsh natural environment can prevent help reaching you in the event of an emergency. But if you are determined to go, please read the following tips carefully:
1. The Milan 36 Tuanchang, located 74 kilometers West of the county seat of Ruoqiang, is the best place from which to begin a Loulan exploration. You need to drive North-East for 222 kilometers and it will require constant use of GPS and a compass to stop yourself from getting lost. The condition of the ground makes driving very difficult, so your speed at points might be limited to about 3 kilometers per hour.
2. Vehicles can go no closer than 18 kilometers to the ruins of the ancient city, and you will have to finish the rest of the journey by foot or by camel.
3. The best time to visit Loulan is during mid-April and mid-October, when it is less windy in the desert.
4. You must have company and several off-road vehicles to go to Loulan. Other necessities include car-repair tools, GPS, satellite phone and medicine, as well as water and food that can last for at least 15 days.
5. The temperature gap between the daytime and night can be huge in the desert, so make sure you have appropriate clothing. And it is a good idea if your clothes and tents are in a striking color so rescuers can easily spot them in an emergency.